A distinct piece of Duluth soon will be adorning countertops in Russia. That’s because a group of Russians toured the Natural Resources Research Institute and got to take home an Epicurean cutting board, a local product the NRRI helped develop through its mechanical test lab.

The dozen Russians were on a tour of NRRI; its parent, the University of Minnesota Duluth, and Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa operations near Cloquet.

The Northland tour was one of 16 available for participants in a St. Paul conference exploring the innovations in industries in the U.S. and Russia. The tours were the final event of a three-day conference.

“Innovation happens all over the place, not just in the Cities,” said Bernadine Joselyn of the Blandin Foundation, which hosted the tour.

The Blandin tour was the only one outside of the Twin Cities area - where other Russians saw engineering and medical labs, schools, a refinery and some iconic company operations such as those at 3M.

At NRRI, the group learned about work creating extract from waste birch bark, peat products, poplar biofuel studies, wetland restoration analysis and the lab research that launched Epicurean, the 10-year-old Duluth company that now sells its kitchen products around the world.

Lunch was at UMD, and presentations were made on the university’s project in Silver Bay growing algae for energy use, studies of Lake Superior and the foreign language apps being developed by students and staff.

At Fond du Lac, they were shown its information management and resource management systems as well as band efforts to engage its younger population. Dinner was served at Black Bear Casino Resort.

The Russians are in Minnesota as part of the U.S. Russia Innovation Conference, an effort to bring innovators together to share ideas. The conference in St. Paul came to fruition under direction from Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

Ritchie said the idea of getting Russians and Americans together to talk innovation was born from talks between President Barack Obama and Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev in 2009. They talked about more collaboration between the countries, Ritchie said.

The Russians in Duluth and at the conference come from diverse backgrounds, Joselyn said. They are innovators, educators, technical experts and entrepreneurs, she said.

Two of the visitors at NRRI Wednesday aren’t strangers to Duluth. Sergey Porada and Yelena Kurdyumova are freelance journalists and translators who set up shop in Minneapolis three years ago.

Both are avid runners and have covered the annual Grandma’s Marathon the past few years.

They wouldn’t miss the event or the beauty of Duluth for anything, they said.

“But we wanted to find out about the business capabilities - the research and education,” Kurdyumova said. “We wanted to see how people collaborate.”

Joselyn said there is obvious interest in the visitors this week considering the continuing news coming out of Ukraine and Crimea.

“They’re aware of the political backdrop,” she said. “But this is citizen-to-citizen diplomacy. We have a shared future and want to be inclusive in our innovation.”

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